How to Know a Remote Worker is Disengaged and the Cure

Sep 2, 2014
6 Min Read

When you’re managing remote employees, it can take longer to realize when there’s a problem than with employees who you see every day. Here are three signs that a remote worker has become disengaged, and what you can do about it when it happens.

  • You realize that you wouldn’t have any idea what your remote employee is working on if you didn’t ask. To be clear, employees who you trust to work remotely should have enough independence and autonomy that you shouldn’t need or expect play-by-plays of how they’re spending their time – but you should also expect good enough communication that you know how they’re progressing against their goals. If you realize that if you stopped asking for updates you could go weeks without hearing anything, that’s a likely sign that your employee isn’t strongly engaged.
  • It regularly takes a long time for your remote employee to return calls or answer emails. For telework to work effectively, remote workers need to ensure that it’s easy for coworkers to reach them, which generally means being especially responsive to calls and emails during business hours since people can’t just pop by their offices. If your remote employee is hard to reach and takes longer than other team members to get back to people, at a minimum it’s a sign that you need to re-establish accessibility standards with her. Because it can also be a symptom of larger productivity problems, it can also be a flag to take a closer look at her work output.
  • Your remote employee doesn’t know key facts about projects or the company that she should be in the loop about. This could be a sign that you or others aren’t doing a good job of keeping remote workers in the loop. But if you’re sure that the details she doesn’t know about were covered on calls and emails she was included on, it’s a sign that she’s not paying attention or retaining key info – which in turn is a sign that she’s checking out.

If you notice these signs of disengagement in remote workers, here are three steps you can take to get things back on track:

1. Dig in to how things are going on the employee’s side. Be direct about what you’re noticing and ask for the employee’s perspective. For instance, you might say, “I noticed that I’m hearing from you less than I used to and you seemed distracted in our last two meetings. How are things going?” Asking for your employee’s perspective before you draw any conclusions is essential because you might find out that she’s been sidetracked with an intensive piece of work, or having connectivity issues, or struggling with an element of her job.

2. Be direct about what you’d like to see. Be explicit about the behaviors that you’d like to see that you’re not seeing. For instance, you might explain that you’d like your employee to return calls from your team the day they’re received or reply to all emails within a business day.

3. Make sure your employee is invested in the work. When people work remotely, it can be easy to get detached from why the work matters and how it fits in with the larger picture. Make sure that you’re doing your part to explain how what your employee is working on ties into what the organization is trying to achieve and why that matters.

Of course, if the problems continue and you don’t see the changes you’ve requested, it might be time to look at whether you have the right person in the job, keeping in mind that ultimately, the right person for the job is someone who will be enthusiastic about the work without needing you to motivate her. But working remotely can be hard, and it’s worth doing a check-up now and then.

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